Shadow Government

Trump’s Iran Policy Is Becoming Dangerous

Growing evidence suggests the U.S. president is traveling a path toward war—whether he knows it or not.

Iranian troops in the Strait of Hormuz celebrate National Persian Gulf Day on April 30.
Iranian troops in the Strait of Hormuz celebrate National Persian Gulf Day on April 30. Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images)

On May 5, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton issued a stark warning to Iran.

The United States, he announced, would deploy the USS Abraham Lincoln carrier strike group along with a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf, “to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force.” The United States, he continued, “is not seeking war with the Iranian regime” but is “fully prepared to respond to any attack.”

It remains unclear what triggered the deployment and Bolton’s strong language. Initial reports suggested that it may have come in response to indications that Iranian-backed Shiite militias were planning attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Other reporting suggested that Israel had tipped off U.S. officials to an impending Iranian attack against U.S. interests, personnel, or allies in the Gulf. An anonymous U.S. official said the deployment had been ordered to bolster “deterrence to what has been seen as potential preparations by Iranian forces and its proxies that may indicate possible attacks on U.S. forces in the region,” but the official added that there were no signs of an imminent Iranian attack.

Given Bolton’s long track record of exaggerating and manipulating intelligence to justify the use of force, it might be tempting to dismiss all of this as fake news. But the prospect of Iran engaging in a provocation that sparks a wider military confrontation is very real—even if it is the Trump administration’s own policy of cornering Tehran that has greatly magnified the danger.

Bolton’s warning comes against the backdrop of rapidly escalating tensions between the United States and Iran. One year ago, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimposed severely damaging banking and oil sanctions aimed at starving Iran of resources and destabilizing the regime. Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy, but the administration’s maximum pressure campaign has thus far failed to force Tehran to negotiate a new nuclear accord or to curtail its support for terrorism and regional militancy. In the face of failure, the White House has not reevaluated its position. Instead, it has doubled down.

Seeking to squeeze Iran to the breaking point, the Trump administration announced in late April that it would end waivers that had allowed China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey to continue importing about 1 million barrels of Iranian oil per day. The administration’s stated goal is to drive Iranian oil exports, the lifeblood of the country’s economy, to as close to zero as possible. Iran responded with renewed threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway off Iran’s coast through which about 20 percent of global traded oil flows. And regime insiders have hinted that Iran could take other steps to disrupt oil exports from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—archrivals of Tehran that have championed Trump’s maximum pressure campaign—by targeting oil shipments through the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the Red Sea, or by hitting Saudi and Emirati critical infrastructure with destructive cyberattacks.

In a further effort to dial up pressure on the regime, the Trump administration has also designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, the first time Washington has issued such a designation against a component of another nation’s government. The Iranian parliament responded by passing a law, which President Hassan Rouhani signed last week, declaring all U.S. troops in the Middle East terrorists and calling the U.S. government a state sponsor of terrorism.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders appear to be contemplating steps to restart the country’s nuclear program. To date, Iran has remained in compliance with the nuclear deal’s limitations on uranium enrichment and other prohibited activities, despite reaping few of the promised economic benefits from the agreement. Over the past year, Tehran’s goal has appeared to be to muddle through, diplomatically leverage international outrage over U.S. sanctions, and wait for regime change in Washington after the 2020 election. But the political consensus among Iranian elites in favor of continuing nuclear restraint seems to be crumbling. Iranian officials have recently suggested that Iran may begin to exceed the nuclear accord’s limitations on the country’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium or restart uranium enrichment at the deeply buried Fordow facility, and Rouhani is scheduled to make a formal announcement on Iran’s next steps on Wednesday. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has even said that factions within the regime are pushing for Iran to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty all together. While such a drastic move seems unlikely for now, Iran’s patience on the nuclear front is running out.

Consequently, as the first anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear accord approaches, the action-reaction spiral the administration set in motion with its maximum pressure campaign has produced a very ominous situation—one in which the risk of military confrontation grows by the day.

Thousands of U.S. troops and Iranian-backed forces operate in close proximity to one another in Iraq, Syria, and the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates continue to pursue their air campaign against Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen despite international outrage over the world’s worst humanitarian disaster there. And Israel regularly conducts military strikes against Iranian arms shipments and infrastructure in Syria. In this volatile context, the scenarios for an intentional or inadvertent U.S.-Iran war are legion.

If Iran or its proxies respond to U.S. pressure in ways that draw American blood or deal a major blow to critical oil infrastructure in the region, things could quickly get out of hand. Unlike in the latter years of the Obama administration, there are currently no high-level lines of communication between Washington and Tehran to manage a crisis. And hard-liners on all sides seem keen for a fight, looking for opportunities to escalate, rather than de-escalate, tensions.

All else being equal, Trump probably doesn’t want another U.S. war in the Middle East. But, if past is prologue, his gut instinct will be to respond (likely via Twitter) to any Iranian provocation with bellicose rhetoric that pours fuel on the fire. It is also easy to envision Iranian actions triggering intense political pressure from the president’s right-wing donors, congressional hawks, and regional allies—the same forces that pressed Trump to exit the Iran deal—for military action. And Trump is no longer surrounded by former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and other cooler heads. He is now enveloped by advisors like Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who have long called for war against Iran.

Indeed, Trump’s advisors appear to be contemplating precisely this eventuality and its possible legal justifications. Last month, during a hearing in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Sen. Rand Paul asked Pompeo whether the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al Qaeda and its associated forces gave the Trump administration the authority to go to war with Iran. Pompeo refused to give a straight forward answer, but—in a dark echo of the lead-up to the Iraq War—said the Trump administration believes there is a connection between Iran and al Qaeda.

Compounding matters, if Iran resumes its nuclear activities, we can expect a return to the type of Israeli threats of military action that were common from 2009 to 2012. Only this time, the U.S. administration is much more likely to encourage Israeli strikes rather than seek to constrain them. Trump’s support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government—which seems deeply rooted in the president’s domestic political calculations—has been unwavering and unconditional. And Trump’s closest advisors seem primed to encourage him to give Israel the green light to launch an attack. After all, in 2015 Bolton opined that the best way to address the Iranian nuclear threat was an Israeli strike backed by U.S. efforts to overthrow the Iranian regime.

This all adds up to a very dangerous moment. Before matters spin out of control, it would be wise for the administration to dial back the rhetoric, open high-level channels with Tehran, and signal a willingness to reenter the nuclear deal as a starting point for new negotiations. But there is zero prospect the administration will take this course. It is doubling down on a strategy of maximum tension, and there is growing evidence it is on a path toward war—whether Trump realizes it or not.

Colin H. Kahl is the inaugural Steven C. Hazy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies' Center for International Security and Cooperation and a strategic consultant at the Penn-Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement. From 2014 to 2017, he was deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. From 2009 to 2011, he served as the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. In 2011, he was awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service by Secretary Robert Gates. He lives in Redwood City, CA. with his wife and two children. Kahl is a co-editor of Shadow Government. Twitter: @ColinKahl